Lawsuit brewing over U website warnings

A Turkish group threatened to sue after a U department called its site “unreliable.”
November 23, 2010

The University of Minnesota has reached a tenuous agreement with a Turkish cultural group in the face of a potential lawsuit over its classification of the organization’s website as “unreliable.”

Until about a week ago, the University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies included a box on its website classifying certain websites as untrustworthy sources on the history of 1915 Armenian genocide. The department removed its list of “unreliable” websites after receiving the draft of a complaint that could lead to a lawsuit.

The draft came from the Turkish Coalition of America, whose website, among others, was included in the list, which was visible to all students.

As a result, TCA, in collaboration with University first year Sinan Cingilli, began gathering the necessary information to file a claim against the University.

The two major grounds for the complaint, according to TCA’s local counsel Larry Frost, are the violation of the right to free speech and access to information and the right to due process, as TCA didn’t know how they were put on the “unreliable” list or why. They are also claiming defamation, or harm to TCA’s reputation.

“A public university has no business telling students in advance that you can’t use these websites,” Frost said.

Cingilli said he and TCA were pleased the University decided to take the list down. However, the claim may still move forward.

“At a state university, where, funnily enough, the motto is ‘Driven to Discover,’ they are basically saying to students that you are incapable of thinking critically,” Cingilli said.

University general counsel Mark Rotenberg said the list was taken down for academic reasons, not legal ones.

“As a legal matter we didn’t find anything defamatory or inconsistent with academic freedom in that little box,” he said. “There was no restriction on free speech.”

On Friday, the University sent a letter agreeing to remove the list. After reading the University’s letter, Bruce Fein, attorney for the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund said that there are some things the organization is still unhappy about.

For example, the letter said CHGS Director Bruno Chaouat had been planning to remove the box for a month before the complaint was sent. According to Cingilli, Chaouat had called those websites “scarlet letters” in a conversation Nov. 5, which was less than a month earlier.

Fein said he will talk with his clients before deciding whether — or how — to proceed with the claim. He is hoping to reach a decision by next week.

Rotenberg said he believes the websites were deemed “unreliable” because of their representation of the alleged Armenian genocide in 1915.

This is a highly controversial topic in which some claim that the Ottoman Empire executed approximately 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians. Others claim the Armenians were revolting against the Ottoman Empire, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million Ottoman Muslims.

TCA’s website clearly defends the Ottoman Empire and calls the traditional view of the conflict “one-sided.”

“Those sites were considered unreliable for students and shouldn’t be used by students when they are writing their papers and such,” Rotenberg said. “The Center [for Holocaust and Genocide Studies] gets to have its opinions about certain materials.”

Beginning in 2009, the Washington, D.C.-based organization began communicating with University President Bob Bruininks regarding the “unreliable” list by sending letters threatening a legal claim. These letters were not well received, Cingilli said. The University, he said, responded with a letter saying it had no intention of changing the website.

Fein and Frost speculated that donors to CHGS have had some say in the content of the website, which would be the reason for the department’s decision to determine what sources aren’t dependable.

Rotenberg said he didn’t know anything about that.

“The U[niversity] administration does not condone any coercion or influence peddling by a donor to an academic program to alter the academic view points of the students and scholars that work in the program.”

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